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The vast majority of performers and songwriters get just one bite of the cherry. Maybe it's a single indelible hit, maybe a landmark album, maybe a phase that lasts several years, but when it's gone it's gone and pop music has moved on. A lucky and gifted few get to enjoy a second act. Robin Gibb was one of them.
In the late 60s, when Gibb was still in his teens, he alternated frontman duties with his hirsute brother Barry. The difference between them was clear on 1967's Bee Gees' first album, where Barry took the lead on the supple soul ballad To Love Somebody while Robin glumly pondered cave-ins on New York Mining Disaster 1941. Robin was the melancholy, eccentric one who sang Massachusetts (their first chart-topper and the second song ever played on Radio 1), wrote the devastating I Started A Joke and pushed the boat out with baroque oddities such as the seven-minute Odessa (City On The Black Sea). His rivalry with Barry led him to leave the band for a year before rejoining in 1970, just in time for a career trough.
This is where less talented songwriters would have stayed on a downward slope. Instead, assisted by producer Arif Mardin, the Bee Gees embraced disco (though they preferred to call it "blue-eyed soul") with a vengeance and found themselves uncannily well-suited to it. If Jive Talkin' and You Should Be Dancing revived their career, then the gargantuan, era-defining success of the Saturday Night Forever soundtrack changed their lives forever. Some disco aficionados weren't wild about the ambassadors of a young, gay, black, American artform being straight, white 60s veterans from Britain via Australia, but there was no quarrelling with songs this good as Stayin' Alive and More Than A Woman.
Saturday Night Fever sold 40 million copies and their follow-up album, Spirits Having Flown, almost as many. Then there were the hits they wrote for people in the 80s: Guilty (Barbra Streisand), Islands in the Stream (Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers), Chain Reaction (Diana Ross), Heartbreaker (Dionne Warwick) and Grease (Frankie Valli). In a decade which saw most 60s acts falter, the Bee Gees had the Midas touch. Barry's falsetto may have eclipsed Robin's mournful quiver but Robin was always there in some capacity as a songwriter and vocalist on some of the most unforgettable pop songs of his era. He also enjoyed sporadic solo success: the Number 2 single Saved By The Bell during his 1969 hiatus from the band, and a string of synth-pop hits in the mid-80s which performed best, for some reason, in Germany.
Throughout such mindboggling success Robin Gibb remained an idiosyncratic, old-fashioned kind of pop star, spending a great deal of time and money on his passion for British history and fundraising for war veterans. In a 2010 Guardian interview he was asked to reveal a secret. "I visit English country churchyards where historical figures are buried," he replied. He was also asked to name his most embarrassing moment. "My whole life," he said, "but I wouldn't change it."
Dorian Lynskey @dorianlynskey
11:31 AM | 21/05/2012
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